Reviewed in Canada on August 19, 2003
[This review speaks mainly to the film, not the 3-disc special edition release]
Black Hawk Down is a tough movie to qualify. It's visually amazing--this is some of the best combat I've seen in a movie. It's thrilling, it's realistic, it's exciting. I wouldn't exactly call this an anti-war film because it depicts war as the ultimate thrill, a real game of real bullets and blood. Yes, it's hell, but with Ridley Scott directing it looks like a very, very good video game.
I don't know why this movie was made. There is no political leaning, there is very little context. It's a blow by blow account of what happened when over 100 Army Ranger and Delta Force soldiers were stuck in a hostile part of Mogadishu, Somalia in late 1993. The enemy, as to be expected from a Jerry Bruckheimer film, is given no identity. They are throngs of Africans, many of them kids, firing round after round and coming like swarms of bees even as they get cut down by the superior US firepower.
The problem is that the movie goes to very impressive lengths to play out this story. The production is huge--the battle scenes, the city scenes (filmed in some bombed-out-looking part of Morocco apparently), the gunplay, etc. This is an expensive film, and I have to wonder why the money and resources go into something like this if there is nothing to say. Then it becomes pure entertainment, which is all the film turns out to be. That's fine, but again, once in a while it would be nice to inject some intelligence into a project that obviously commanded so many other resources and considerations.
Why was America in Somalia? Granted, that is not the concern of the film, but some kind of context for the war, the rebels, the aims of the mission, the pov of Somalis who were killing to negotiate, as one Somali says in the only behind-the-scenes bit in the film, would have put the film over the edge and actually made the audience ::gasp:: think about why America fights where it does.
There's also the obligatory war film clichés that are just hard to stomach when we know that these are real soldiers being trivialized for the popcorn crowd. Tom Sizemore, as a veteran and tough-as-nails McKnight, goes back into the fray to rescue more men and walks calmly through the street as bullets ricochet around him, like Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now. Modern movie special effects can simulate rockets blowing people apart, literally, and leg wounds being operated on with someone's bare hands, muscle and sinew and all. It is typical of Hollywood today: they have limitless resources, but those resources (being able to shoot a film as visually and technically impressive as this) serve a story that could use a bit more tweaking and humanization. But the filmmakers are
not interested in that angle.
It would be nice to know why Mogadishu is hell on earth, with hordes of enemies tearing people out of helicopters and raining rockets on American soldiers. Yes, the soldiers were brave, they were highly trained, but the mission was a disaster, and it does the real story a disservice to portray it as just another chapter in American gung ho-ism. Also, the single most memorable bit of that real story was the body of an Army Ranger being dragged through the streets by an angry mob that spit on him, and much worse. That was a disturbing bit of footage for Americans to watch. Would that have been more tasteless than showing an RPG rocket stuck in someone's side? Massive, gaping wounds? Missing legs? Why clean up real events and their aftermath for the sake of a night out at the movies? Maybe they should put their mouths where the money is.
Make no mistake--I couldn't turn this film off. It's exciting; it made me want to play Ghost Recon or one of those games. It also made me want to find out more about this grim chapter in President Clinton's tenure as Commander in Chief, even though it was his predecessor who landed troops there when he was a lame duck. Somalia was an embarrassment, an event that told America we were no longer willing to sacrifice men--18 as compared to over 1,000 Somalis killed in battle--in some foreign wasteland. The film is not enlightening in that regard. It's exciting, it's Jerry Bruckheimer, folks. Watch it and decide for yourself.
It looks like they went to very impressive lengths to put this out on DVD, as expected with a production like this. Definitely worthwhile to pick up, as multiple commentaries, deleted scenes, and other goodies sweeten the deal.